Above – Paul Tabone and Company. Cover – Josh Piterman. Photos – Daniel Boud

Phantom really is an alluring and enduring beast. For 36 years, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s take on Gaston Leroux’s gothic novel has broken all kinds of theatrical records. With its lushly romantic score, iconic staging and instantly recognisable imagery, the show genuinely exists as its own star vehicle. While circumstances have bizarrely led to Opera Australia mounting two different versions of the same show in the same year, ‘Phantom Phenomena’ in other parts of the world has taken a bit of a hit. February 2023 will see the curtain fall on Broadway’s longest run and in London, the shows return after its (opportunistic?) covid casualty closure was met with accusations of penny-pinching sabotage due to a scaled down design and only half of what was once the West End’s largest orchestra. Andrew Lloyd Webber himself underplayed and defended the alterations by referring to the new version as “Substantially identical” to the original. It’s therefore quite interesting to see in this production’s program notes, such mention of legacy and homage to the original and now late Phantom visionaries, Director Hal Prince, Choreographer Gillian Lynne and in particular, Stage and Costume Designer Maria Bjornson whose exquisite costumes feature fully in this production. While explanations about the motivation for updating one of the world’s most successful stage shows are interesting and worthy, they do feel mildly apologist not just to fans, but possibly also to the original creatives, alive and dead, for royalties that may no longer need to be paid.  

Mere months after reviewing the spectacular reimagined outdoor staging on Sydney’s iconic harbour, this postponed from 2021 iteration has now arrived in Melbourne boasting a list of new creative credits – many of whom put their names and ideas into the mix for recent anniversary concerts, the ‘revised’ West End production and of course the extensive UK and US tours upon which this latest Opera Australia version is based.

First mounted as a tour in 2012, the major point of difference in this production is in its design. The genius of Maria Bjornson’s original sets were in their beauty and in their simplicity – a series of extravagant drapes and a desk for example was all it took to denote the opulence of the theatre manager’s office. In this latest incarnation by Paul Brown, a more comprehensive design has been realised to depict the inner sanctum of the Paris Opera House and indeed the Phantom’s world below. The design is incredibly enjoyable and it works superbly to add a new, exciting and overall gritty realness. The journey into the Phantom's lair below has somehow become more interesting, particularly in that it’s now undertaken by the central performers themselves over the elevated doubles previously used to distract the audience while the stage below transformed. Despite the famous gondola journey feeling a little shorter, overall, with some added elements, the entire sequence remains as iconic and as spectacular as the original. In drawing another comparison, what the Sydney Harbour production gained in being so dominated by designer Gabriela Tylesova’s gloriously sweeping staircase, this production sadly loses. While opening Act 2 in a beautiful, mirrored ball room does work tremendously well, Masquerade as a show standard is synonymous with Palais Garnier’s breath-taking staircase and the lack of it is genuinely felt. And what of the chandelier? Well ... (spoiler alert!) ... while it will still be a thrill for first timers, despite producer Cameron Mackintosh claiming a special Australian makeover, not seeing one of the world’s most famous light fittings lift from the stage and soar out across the stalls just wasn’t the same.

A more psychotic protagonist, an ingenue with more agency, a less insipid suitor and an ensemble that is more effectively used to generate atmosphere. This production really does present a great deal of newness for the initiated. Performance wise, there really is nothing to offer but superlatives. This piece only truly works when the three leads are as strong as each other and where the Sydney Harbour production unfortunately suffered from some uneven casting, Josh Piterman, Amy Manford and Blake Bowden are all astonishingly, inseparably and phenomenally good. This commendation extends right across the board to all principles and indeed to the entire company. As theatre goes this is as tight, as well produced, as superbly directed, as big budget and as extravagant as you’re ever likely to see. 

The Phantom of the Opera is an iconic, history making and wonderful musical that still delights decades after its inception because it brings together so successfully the very best elements of theatre. A great story is always at the heart of any success and much of this show’s appeal is due to that story. Gender politics in the years since the show premiered in the 1980’s has shifted dramatically but revisionism can be as eye rolling as the standards its attempting to re calibrate. Despite streaming services, video games and cinema being awash with dodgy tropes, through a modern lens and in a climate of social introspection, this story of a disfigured man stalking a woman with questionable intent might no longer be savoury musical theatre material when one compares it to say, the pleasantries of a barber slitting his clients throats for pies! Phantom IS a stalker narrative and that most of us are smart enough to know that that’s not ok, seems to allude many desiring of this conversation. Discussion through a modern portal is valid and necessary but in staging a classic musical, are we really condoning the obsessive pursuit of a talented woman, the literal flying of a theatre flyman and the garrotting of a tenor? Maybe we’re just having a fabulous night out in the theatre enjoying some glorious music, some extraordinary singing and some fabulous special effects. It might serve those who have figuratively superglued themselves to the theatre billboards out front to have a scan across seat availability and ticket pricing to have affirmed that there really is an awful lot of awful people prepared to pay an awful lot of money to be awfully offended. Now move on because there really is something worthwhile to see here!

Go and see Phantom if you never have or you simply want to reignite your love for it all over again. This new and revitalised production won’t disappoint at all because it’s seriously seriously good!

Event details

Opera Australia and the Really Useful Group present
The Phantom of the Opera
music Andrew Lloyd Webber | lyrics Charles Hart (additional lyrics by Richard Stilgoe) | book Richard Stilgoe and Andrew Lloyd Webber

Venue: State Theatre | Arts Centre Melbourne VIC
Dates: until 5 February 2023
Bookings: phantomoftheopera.com.au




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